Public preservation of historical and cultural landmarks in Japan is a topic I’ve been thinking about more and more as I visit various castles, temples, and shrines throughout the Kansai region. My day trip to Uji this past Friday evoked an internal debate about how preservation should be accomplished, and how Japan views its public history vis-à-vis Western countries.
In Kyoto, due to the 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites (some of which are in Uji) and countless other temples, shrines, and relics that have been named “national treasures” by the Japanese government, the city has some responsibility to maintain what is believed to be the original appearance of each site. Even though Kyoto was largely spared the destruction of World War II, when you’re dealing with buildings that could be over a millennium old, it shouldn’t be surprising to the average tourist that those quaint looking torii gates (an entrance to a shrine or temple that is supposed to keep out demons and serve purifying purposes) are actually made of some concrete compound and not wood. And yet it still is surprising, and there’s something disheartening about reading a descriptive plaque at the entrance to these places that says what you’re basically seeing is a mere shadow, an impressionist painting, of what it once was. One can’t help but wonder if allowing for some natural decay might be a better preservation of the magic of some of these ancient places.
In the pictures above, for example, all of these popular places in Kyoto appear in present form as the result of some preservation. But the difference between them is that the first one is the result of a concerted effort to freeze time by making the shrine grounds look new, while the last two represents an approach that freezes time by preserving the landscape so as to make things look old. The structures along the Kamogawa look as if they could be Edo period, though the cynical part of me suspects that none of them are made of wood any more and are just cleverly lacquered.
Uji is a small city that is about an hour’s drive from Kyoto, and during the Heian period, which comprises most of the images people have of classical Japan, it was where many of the aristocracy went to retreat from their bureaucratic duties in the capital. What I enjoyed about Uji was the more natural and transparent efforts towards historical preservation there. For instance, two of the UNESCO World Heritage sites I visited, the Byodo-in (平等院) and Ujigami Shrine (宇治上神社) made no efforts to hide their extensive renovation projects (see below). This is in spite of the fact that the Byodo-in is so iconic that it appears on the back of the Japanese 10 yen coin. Maybe it is just that Uji never became as urbanized as Kyoto, but nature itself has more of a pulse here, and it mixes perfectly in a city where convenience stores don’t ubiquitously line the streets and tea-houses still operate in 17th century buildings with creaky floorboards. Somehow Uji has managed to preserve classical Japan as it appears in the The Tale of Genji more than its cultural mecca neighbor Kyoto.